Once Upon a Time in China (1991)

Rating: A

Dir: Tsui Hark
Star: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Yuen Biao, Jackie Cheung

[11] Hark’s latest historical epic feels like an acidic version of Project A; Master Wong (Li), a local militiaman in China, is seeing his country carved up by the super-powers, but can’t do much about it as all his actions bring him into conflict with the authorities. The Americans and their henchmen are shipping off the locals as cheap labour for the California gold-rush, but when they kidnap Jet’s true love (Kwan, cute), it’s time for him and his disciple (Biao) to kick gwailo ass.

For any film to keep me utterly engrossed for 135 minutes is an achievement, especially when it portrays us “foreign devils” as being at best stupid and at worst evil. However, the politics doesn’t affect the entertainment value, my only quibble being the occasional fantasy element that sneaks in – Hark should go all the way or not at all, as they detract from the “realism”. Otherwise, it’s hard to find fault – acted very well (special praise for Cheung), directed very well (as you’d expect), an ambitious attempt to combine many genres, and could win over many new fans.